21 August, 2009

Ask Al: Training & Working in the UK

A few years back I received an email from a totally lovely, eloquent and hopeful student named Lauren. Lauren is terribly bright and articulate (she was attending Barnard College at Columbia University when she wrote this) and she was curious and crafty enough to do her research and she randomly found and contacted me through my website to ask me a few questions about the big bad world.

Then that got me thinking: if Lauren is out there, and has questions I can answer, perhaps my answer to her could serve to help others out there with similar concerns and queries.

Thus! I decided to start a new serial entitled Ask Al; in which I post, as you know, a real-life question and answer correspondence (edited for privacy of course), in the hopes of helping, enlightening, or perhaps merely entertaining, other inquiring minds out there.

Since this note, I have had the extreme pleasure of meeting Lauren in person at stage door and want you all to know that Lovely Lauren was the start of it all.

I now offer you the very first Ask Al.

* * *

Hi Alexandra,

I recently read the "Fresh Face" article on Theatre.com about you and "Fiddler on the Roof." First of all, congratulations, and even though I do not live in the UK, I would love to see it!

I guess I'm writing to you because as a young actor I am looking for advice. I just graduated high school in Cleveland, Ohio and am going to Barnard College, Columbia University in the fall to study theatre and pursue some other academic interests. I have done some professional theatre here in Cleveland and some summer programs (British American Drama Academy, American Conservatory Theatre, Stagedoor Manor) and eventually want to break into professional theatre as a career. As much as I love the US, I have to admit, I have always been an Anglophile and even more intrigued and impressed by the British theatre. That said, I have done a lot of research on drama schools and even though graduate school/conservatory training is four years away, I'm still looking for guidance considering attempting to go abroad for more actor training or staying here for school (that is if I get in!). I have always been impressed by the advanced level of training in Britain and the almost different approach and appreciation of theatre. And you having gone to RSAMD obviously had an amazing learning experience and piece of it! In fact, I feel that maybe my "theatre values" are more similar to the majority of British "theatre values" versus some American "values" (although that may be too presumptuous of me).

I guess what I'm getting at is what do you recommend for an American actor who is thinking about going to school in the UK for training and eventually wishing to work in the UK? I have heard so many conflicting views on trying to go to drama school in the UK and even more on getting work in the UK. I have constantly been discouraged in attempting to go the UK because I have been told I would never work as an American even if I had pursued a degree at one of the drama schools. You obviously have defied that assumption and I guess I am wondering what your advice is on that matter. As corny as it sounds, I have always dreamed of studying in the UK (in fact I almost went there for university - I got accepted to a few academic schools for English and English & Drama but decided to stay here) and moreover working as an actor in the UK but have always been told that it is pretty much impossible. You are doing what I long to do so you seem like the right person to ask for advice!

So, once again congratulations on all your theatrical accomplishments and thanks again for reading my lengthy e-mail, I appreciate it! Break a leg!


* * *

Dear Lauren,

First of all, you are a very articulate and impressive writer! Your email was very descriptive. But what you are asking me to articulate is complicated. I cannot speak on behalf of any organisation, and I also encourage you to remember that everything that has happened to me in Britain is fairly uncommon, and that working as an actor anywhere (not to mention in a foreign country) is never easy no matter how strong the desire. So, that all being understood, I am about to administer some non-flowery, utterly realistic tough love... get ready...

You clearly have a very set view of what you want to do with your life, and also seem to be ambitious and have a concept of your world outside of "the box." Yes, training abroad is a wonderful, irreplaceable experience, and twice the education you would get at home due to the cultural exposure alone.

It must be understood however (and I can't tell you how many times I've explained this to other American students-- which is why it will be in bold) that if you are not eligible for a British WORK (not student or travel) VISA (be it through European Union ancestry, marriage [though this can be VERY precarious and not at ALL a guarantee], being a celebrity, Commonwealth citizenship), YOU CANNOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WORK IN THE UK.

There have been many "schemes" that fluctuate regularly, allowing graduates from British Universities and Drama Schools to stay for a period of 24 months after graduating. The rules change almost annually, but as of now this opportunity exists for most foreign students. [*Update 11/2013: This opportunity NO LONGER exists in the UK in any manner.*]

Still. If you decide to train in the UK, there will still be many things you will not be able to do that your British classmates will benefit from: you will not be able to work as an actor during training (this happens quite often-- a student will leave temporarily or before they actually graduate), you will therefore not be able to legitimately audition for anything pre-graduation (a valuable experience), and all of the contacts, agents, casting directors will be of little to no use to you once you quite probably return home.

Example: my friend (let's call him 'J' shall we?) is an American actor who trained at RSAMD, and desperately wished to stay in the UK after graduation. At the time (roughly 2005) there was a new scheme from the Home Office called the Fresh Talent Initiative, that allowed anyone with a degree from a Scottish University to stay in the UK for 2 years without work restrictions. He successfully applied, landed one of the best agents in the country, collected many contacts, and did reasonably well for a young actor starting out. His career and life began to take root and flourish in the UK. He made professional connections, made a little name for himself, worked regularly and made and built upon personal relationships.

Unfortunately, he was not eligible to extend this Fresh Talent opportunity as it was strictly 24 months and nothing more. He was not eligible to attain a different visa (say the Highly Skilled Migrant Visa which is based on exceptional circumstances-- such as making over a certain amount per year, education, age, work experience, etc), and thus, was forced to return back to the US without so much as an agent, contact, or reputable American acting resume to his name. And though J does not regret or dismiss the value of his UK experience, if he could do things again, he would have just come straight back to the States to begin an American life in the first place, for he had to start all over again from the bottom. (*Update 11/2013* Incidentally, J did pretty well for himself across North America! He recently decided to retrain and change careers because he felt being an actor was a great experience but no longer in line with what he wanted or who he became in the present. Life is a marathon--not a sprint.)

Do you see the predicament? It is a question of

So. If you see yourself living in Britain in 15 years time, and you have no legal way of achieving that, then you need to rethink your goals.

If all you are after is British training, well now that is available to anyone who is qualified. And in my experience, it is worth the schlep across the ocean. (But that is for another time...)

In another contrasting example, my friend "G" was also a forgein student training in the UK and he graduated before the Fresh Talent Initiative was put in to place. He was desperate to stay and create a life for himself in the UK but there was no opportunity for him to do so. G was forced to return home to Canada immediately following graduation and slowly created a life for himself there. He has worked steadily at one of the top theatre festivals in the world, been in several major films, and has quite an impressive role on a cable drama that required some serious English accent action. He is now successful enough to apply as a Highly Skiled Migrant on the back of his North American success if that is what he wanted to do.


You have to be very very clear about what you want to achieve, and every British student around you will most likely be making the logical choices of moving to London and settling in so the pull to follow suit will be tempting. But consider the "costs" of losing the opportunity to stay once you've begun to establish a life you more than likely will have to give up. I believe if you keep the "training experience" and "24 months experience" as a guide, with the ultimate eye on making your way home eventually, you can't go wrong. (Which means nurturing your home contacts throughout the duration of your UK stay).

To answer your other question directly, do Americans work in the UK? Yes, of course. There are hundreds of working American actors all across Britain, and people that tell you otherwise are either making assumptions or il-informed. My film, 1408, was cast entirely with American actors living and working in England. There were three Americans in Fiddler on the Roof. American plays, musicals and films are done all the time in the UK and the real thing is almost always preferred.

But, unless you have a convincing English accent, you will never be seen as anything more than an American actor, and that really limits you. My English accent is something I have perfected to the point of insanity (hours and hours and hours and hours of practice like Eliza Doolittle...), and it has never been questioned. In fact, the advert I did for Zovirax in 2006 was one where I (shhhh!) pretended to be English and although I absolutely can't believe it, no one ever knew otherwise. But amusement aside, it really does have to be that good.

You may at this point be asking, "well how are you working in the UK? And the answer is complicated. The short version is, that I was (by completely fluke-ridden exception) awarded a temporary WORK PERMIT (only lasts for a specific time period, for a certain role, for a specific company) to play Laura in The Woman in White, and off the back of that success I was awarded a Highly Skilled Migrant Visa which is awarded on a points-based system. I was awarded points based on personal recomendations, earnings, and because the circumstances of my fast and surprising success were extreme. But I'm telling you, I BARELY GOT THAT VISA. BARELY scraped by with enough evidence to stay, and it was touch and go for weeks. I don't say that to be discouraaging I am merely presenting an realty/indication of the difficulty. And if I had to return home to the US, I have no American contacts, no agent, no equity card...

So! Best of luck. I hope that is helpful and not too discouraging. Remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. The most important things in life have very little to do with career, and it is far more pressing to be proud of the quality of PERSON you are, than of the things you own or have achieved. That's my view anyway.

here are a few additional websites of interest:
The Home Office, UK

18 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: Moscow Photos

"I didn't choose Russia but Russia chose me. I had been fascinated from an early age by the culture, the language, the literature and the history to the place." 

-- Helen Dunmore

O! It was [but is now no longer, thanks to the internet] lost!

Check out the wonderful blog of my long lost friend James Welsch here.

James is a very talented composer that I met at Interlochen in 1999. He was terribly clever with rhythms-- in fact, percussive pieces both instrumental and vocal, stood out as one of his finest achievements. It was his compositions for the voice that brought us together collaboratively, I sang his beautiful and achingly original "Sigh No More" (from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing) for his Senior Recital in May of 2000, at high noon the same day as our Prom (or, MORP as we strange Interlocheners called it).

But, all this being said, it was his string quintet that has stayed with me for nearly a decade, and been a part of my creative life. throughout the entirety of this time. I used it in my teaching from 2002-2005, and his piece featured heavily in several productions I did at RSAMD. When his music was going to be used for The Cherry Orchard, I tried desperately to find him and ask for his permission (and for his blessing), to no avail.

Then, a few months ago I found James again after a nine year hiatus. The glories of the internet bestowed a reunion upon us, and I had the opportunity to contact him (I can still sing the entire haunting melody of that string quintet from memory).

The following is our exchange which I include here because... I just think reconnecting is a magical thing. A magical thing. And those moments are sometimes so marvelous, they simply must be shared.

Look out for him. He was a wildly talented teenager. I can't imagine how incredible he must be now.

* * *

James. Okay.... I am about to describe a piece you wrote that was performed in your Senior Recital: it was a string quartet (possibly quintet?) with an emphasis on the viola. It is, one of my favourite pieces of music in the world. I believe there were four movements, the third very vibrant, the second (?) very melancholic and epically heartbreaking.

So.... I would be lying if I told you that over the years, this piece of music was NOT a part of the stage movement class I taught at Interlochen in 2002, or the mask classes I taught in Glasgow from 2003 to 2005. Or that, the whole piece in its entirety did not underscore/orchestrate a beautiful student production of The Cherry Orchard I did in Scotland in 2003 (you were credited in the program by the way, I just had no idea how to FIND you at the time, despite multiple fruitless attempts...)

I will now utilize bullet points for the next section of thoughts.

1. Um, thank you.
2. I hope you don't mind.
3. What is the NAME of this piece?! An old version of iTunes erased the name of it from the files I had.
4. Do you have any other recordings of this piece?
5. If so, could I have them?? I promise not to use them in any other rogue Scottish Chekhovian productions ... or productions of any other kind for that matter...
6. How are you? How are things?
7. Thank you, again. In an odd way, you have been with me all these years, orchestrating my life though you didn't even realize it. Amazing thing, music, isn't it? Evocative, haunting, and far reaching.

All the best,

Al x

* * *

His response:

Good Morning Alexandra! And how do you do,

Isn't it amazing that piece was from NINE years ago. Gracious heavens. I was thinking writing a faux angry letter with a copyright citation from my lawyer, then saying just kidding, but then I didn't want to hurt you if you didn't get the joke!

No, thank you Al I'm glad you like that piece & you've found use for it. (Did you know: to make a piece not-copyrighted, you have to state that it's in the public domain, otherwise its AUTOMATICALLY considered copyrighted & protected by congress? I publish all my music anonymously these days & I have to specifically state that it's not copyrighted. I've been planning on UN-copyrighting that old stuff, so in such a hypothetical situations like old recordings played in Chekhov plays in Scotland, people don't have to worry about paying men in suits to use my music.) But anyway, that was the nicest letter I've gotten in a while, & a few days later another Interlochen friend Danny sent a random note saying he dug up an old video of another piece, Parallel Obsessions, &, in his words, "What a blast! I love that piece, James!" So, thank you friends, for lifting my spirits when my artistic moral is low.

OKAY! Let's answer all your questions in NUMERICAL ORDER*:

& 2. No worries, as we say in the Sierra Nevadas.
3. It's called "String Quintet of", & there's two violas which is why its so viola-y. I wrote a bunch of pieces that year with similar titles, such as the "String Quartet of". The four movements are unlabeled, like "I", "II", "III", "IV". The musicians were Eska Laskus, Katherine Bormann, Carrick (neé Nathan) Bell, Emily Eng, & Melissa Solomon.
4. I'm assuming you have the second recording from my Senior Recital (which starred you!) No, it's never been played again! Perhaps your repayment could be someday, when you come upon a wandering band of string musicians, ala the Muppet Movie, to get it playd again some day. Those Interlochen friends did a great job, but it would be great to get a recording with tighter rhythms &c.
5. You know I was in England for a year,02-03 at Oxford, I wish we were in touch, I woulda come and seen it! And I was just back last summer, in Derbyshire for my friends' wedding, then singing in Newcastle & Liverpool, but I avoid London like I avoid NY. I hope you like living there tho.
6. Well, thank you for asking. I'm still in my "lost years", working to emerge from them. I didn't write music for many years, frustrated by a lack of performance opportunities & a non-existent audience for new classical music. These days I write FOLK HYMNS, mine are non-traditional tunes sort of in the traditional American "shape-note" genre. Like this one I just put on my blog. I'm working on a west coast folk hymnal called the Western Harmony. Otherwise, I serve champagne to rich people at lavish San Francisco parties & drink beer & hike a lot & play the ukulele & write other things also. Hmm, I guess that's a fair summary. I live in a groovy 1905 flat in Berkeley with my friend Jenny & we throw spectacular parties, like yesterday's FAKE WEDDING, with a randomly chosen bride & groom, a beautiful service in the hills, & speeches & dancing!
7. You've been with me too! I enjoyed looking thru yours photos of you in a variety of plays, & I'm glad you're working in THE THEATER.

Come visit California! Great plays in Berkeley. Happy Easter & Christmas & write from time to time!

Many happy returns of the day,


* Addressing points is numerical order is one of my favorite things (as Louise can attest) and it 1. makes me love James even MORE and 2. I believe this addressing things numerically business will most definitely make it on to the next list of favorites... naturally most likely to be titled "Whiskers on Kittens..." Watch this space.

15 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: St. Petersburg Photos

"Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before."
-- Anton Chekhov

14 August, 2009

Gratitudes 51-75

51. Kit
52. Clouds
53. Roses
54. The feeling I get when I teach
55. My beautiful computer
56. My Fiddler family
57. My waist! ;-)
58. Red lipstick
59. Jake the cat
60. Michael
62. The internet (which is amazing, oh my GOD)
63. Coffee
64. Mrs. Devine for teaching me how to read...
65. Nina Machus for teaching me how to sing...
66. Dude & Jimbob Stephenson for giving me a foundation
67. What About Bob?
68. Concealer!
69. Birmingham, Michigan
70. Danny Kaye
71. ...Dad... again...
72. The miracle of technology
73. Gap Curvy jeans
74. La Petite Coquette for the confidence boost of the decade, and for Arielle for showing me the light!
75. The Savoy Theatre

13 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: The Tale of Rabbi Lieb

We found the bakery. It was there all along. Like Brigadoon. We sat down and enjoyed some rather splendid baked goods and coffee.
Then I got all philosophical.*

*how fascinating to know now, how prescient this video would truly become...

12 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - The Moscow Metro

Soviet resolution to build The Metro
We take the glorious Metro! The people's Palace of underground delights. 

The Moscow Metro (Моско́вский метрополите́н) serves the city as well as the neighboring Moscow Oblast towns of Krasnogorsk and Reutov. This first underground railway system in the Soviet Union was opened in 1935 with a single 11-kilometer (6.8 mi) line and 13 stations (it will soon have 188 stations and be over 313km). [Also! The beginning of the Cold War led to the construction of a deep section of the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line. The stations on this line were planned as shelters in the event of nuclear war...holy crow... 

There was an intense governmental glorification of The Metro, for it was not only one of the Soviet Union’s most extravagant architectural projects (with reflective marble walls, high ceilings and grandiose chandeliers, many Moscow Metro stations have been likened to an "artificial underground sun," in fact, the vertical design emphasis encouraged citizens to look upward as if looking up at the sun, and to boot, the Metro's chandeliers were one of the most technologically advanced aspects of the entire project). Stalin ordered the metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future)This underground communist paradise reminded its riders that Stalin and his party had not only delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifices, but the monument was in their honor and glorified the people themselves. Most important of all: proletarian labor produced this svetloe budushchee.

... I mean... where else in the world is the rumble of trains accompanied by the tinkle of chandeliers? I marvel that taking the Metro is a rather solemn, official experience. Everyone is entirely silent, the announcements deliberate, officious and almost reverent. The hum of the electric lights combined with that of the churning escalators lull the upright people who look straight ahead and stand very still.  "This is as close as the city would get to a church, I suppose," I whisper to Kit as we make our way down the stairs. He just turns around to me and nods, taking the social cue that THEY DON'T REALLY TALK IN THE METRO AT ALL, and perhaps lightly suggesting that I take the hint as well.

All of this as we prepare for the sleeper train to St. Petersburg tonight. 


The Russia Diaries: 12 August - The Young

"You're sixty years old. Medicine won't help."
- Anton Chekhov

* * *

Later exhausted and drained from our "very sensible" trip to the post office we drive to  Novodevichy Cemetery only to discover it is closed. Damn.

We sigh, concede to return next week and walk around the beautiful river bank, taking in the setting sun, the extremely, demonstratively affectionate couples snuggling on benches, the dogs, the ducks and babushkas all sitting still as anything, lost in thought.

We buy cold drinks and head back to the car, ready to pack up and head for the train station, The Red Arrow, and for our sojourn to St. Petersburg.

On the way home, Vadim tells us his children and Emanuelle will be in Petersburg at the same time.      "Perhaps you could met?" he suggests, "though it is a very large city and they will all be at the disco..." he grimaces. "I worry for them," he admits, "and... how I envy them."

The lost time. Lost opportunities. That is a theme with Vadim. In Irina one can clearly see the Russian characteristic of acceptance, of spiritual endurance.

But in Vadim it is another matter. Vadim knows of and cares little for the details of economic ideologies, but on a human level, thus far, he appears to be an individualist, and almost, one might say, somewhat ashamed of it.

     "Nastia..." he sighs, "Nastia signed up for fashion school in Milan and got on a plane by herself at 19. She doesn't even know what that kind of freedom really feels like to the likes of me. Communism is a distant shadow of her past, something she barely remembers. And why should she? Why?" And he is quiet for a long time.

We drive along. I wonder if he is thinking about the juicer. I wonder if he is thinking about Nastia's current Italian visa troubles. The day we arrived she had gone to the Italian consulate and been denied her student visa. It was a paperwork issue, and after Kit assisted Vadim draft an English letter clearing the whole mess up, everything was off with her student acceptance letter and all was well. But she returned home understandably distressed. And it was precisely this distress, this notion that world is her oyster for in many ways, it is; that was the thing that both amused and hurt Vadim. That, and of course, Emanuelle. And the juicer. And perhaps the notion that she is leaving not only his house but his world. The only familiar world he knows.

This isn't about the juicer or the boyfriend or the fashion school. It isn't all about her growing up. It is more about an uncertain and unfamiliar world. For her, for him, for everyone. It isn't simple. And yet, in truth, it is.

     "And Arkady?" he continues, laughing loudly, "Arkady is a born businessman! An entrepreneur! He owns a flower shop with his mother on Tverskya! He renovates old cars, races them, and sells them! He is studying for his doctorate in science! Everything he touches turns to solid gold!" He shakes his head, smiling. Confused perhaps, but proud. "And did you know he knows everything? And, by the way, he is always right. He won't stop talking until you agree with him! Where would Arkady's place be in Communism? They are so lucky and so... ignorant..." he sighs. The Young.

They all nod.

And it is in this moment when I truly feel that I am Arkady's age. No. More than that. Not only his children's age, but I feel a part of the generation that shares the auspiciousness of his visions.

I nod too. But my nod is a vow: to not to waste the opportunity that is my life, nor the gift that is my freedom.

The young and The Old.
I wonder.
I wonder if it is always the same.

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - "You feel how others feel..."

12 August 2009


Tired. We walked nearly 12 kilometers yesterday and I slept like the dead. Vadim is an angel of hospitality, and we set off for a slightly slower-paced day filled with official business.

On the drive in to town I coerce Vadim to speak of his personal history. He is such a deep and curious man-- thoughts penetrative, mind broad and insatiable. Before we left this morning he gave us both a copy of his published novel! A story of an aging man in the Soviet Moscow who falls in love with a younger woman he cannot have...Hm.

It is evident soon that the story of his father is the starting point--a general in the Red Army who believed fervently in the Socialist ideal, "a great patriot," he added thoughtfully after a moments pause.

His father traveled to the U.S. during the Cold War, an absolutely shocking act of open-mindedness for the time, and found America to be "shockingly normal," returning with stories of human interest from Oregon to St. Louis, to Charlotte. Apparently motivated by the death of his own father (murdered by Germans only 500 meters or so from Vadim's house!), he joined the army young and never looked back.

"He adored his Motherland," says Vadim, interestingly referring to Russia as "his" Motherland and not "the" or "our." When I tentatively bring this up Vadim simply closes his eyes and shrugs, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening for a moment...

"And you?" I ask, changing the tone in typical British style, "How did you become the lifelong medical Muscovite?" He slaps the steering wheel and laughs, small teeth bared, head back in sudden joyous amusement-- so thrilled to be relieved of his dark thoughts for a moment.

"My mother's family has a medical background, and I think it was understood that my brother and I would follow this tradition. My father never pressured us to serve in the Army, and anyway as a medical doctor one is required to serve in the Army reserves as a Captain with training and everything. HA!" he explodes, slapping the wheel again, "Imagine me! Old man running about with teenagers in Georgia!" At this Irina laughs. She shifts cat-like in her seat, smirking at Vadim before glancing out the window again. He asks her is she understands him in English. She nods, and replies in Russian that she understands more than he knows. He looks at her and they both smile.

* * *

After arriving in town we change over some money and retire to Petrovka street at my request (it is going to feature...). Vadim takes u to a Turkmen restaurant and we embark on a glorious meal of "Asiatic" food served in a colourful tents illuminated by the blazing summer sun. There are men with pipes, students lounging on decadent jewel-toned sofas, and women in hats smoking skinny "European" cigarettes.. It was at this stage that I realize I am capable of reading Cyrillic letters and actually getting by in the Russian language! How did that happen?! Suddenly, the "code" cracked, I was at last able to read things and ask Vadim what things were, point, ask, etc. It was a real thrill.

I order a traditional stir-fry, Kit a sturgeon shish kebab and Irina noodles and pavlova. Vadim takes only coffee. I think of the photo albums from last night, of his relatively radical transformation from obese young man to fit and trim older man in what appeared in the photos to be just a few months. He not only lost weight, his hair turned gray, he grew a beard, he got glasses.... what prompted this shift? Dare I even ask? As if reading my mind he comments on it himself.

"When I was fat I would've eaten all day, but now just coffee," he apologizes/
"What brought about the change?" I ask, trying not to sound anything other than matter-of-fact.
"I was sick," he looks down into his coffee, "very sick. Yes." He glances away onto the green of the park where a few moments ago he had told us he has spent his childhood and youth behind the old hospital. "I am a medical doctor, I should have known something was not right," he explains this with a hint of what seems to be shame in his voice. "I was tired all the time, for 15 years. I thought I was just sick from Communism!" he laughs, but his face falls quickly, as does Irina's, the memory of that time devastating. "Anyway..." he continues quietly, "finally my colleague made me take a test, and I was able to identify the problem and move on from there..." he sips his coffee and thinks about this for another moment before speaking again, this time with more solemnity. "But the medication, the treatment, was the hardest thing in my life."

Ah Vadim. Such a complex man. A child of the Soviet Union, but an individual spirit aching to grow.

"The entire process, it takes ten years. I am in the middle of year eight," he says with humility. "Many, many people do not survive the process..." I cannot believe this. I press him gently to explain. "Well..." he searches, "all of the symptoms you had before are the same only in reverse and at 1000 percent. You are so irritable you are like a monster, lashing out at those you love for reasons you do not understand, it is as if the voice was not my own..." and then he grew very quiet in deed, moving the white cup between his surgeon's hands.

"But worst of all what is inside your mind. The opposite of exhaustion is not alertness... it is mania... and it is this that drives men to take their lives. It is the never-ending noise of the brain, releasing one thousand thoughts a second, every one of them menacing. And there is nothing to stop it. Nothing turns it off. No Sleep. No pill. Nothing but death itself..."

He finishes the final sip of his coffee with finality, exhaling as he replaces the cup upon the saucer.

"It took time, and a lot of tolerance from my family, but now I am more even and quite well. I do not know how they all managed. But it has made me a better Doctor," he said brightly, attempting to lighten things. "More sympathetic."

I look at him and try to penetrate him. I feel so limited by our too brief acquaintance, by the language barrier and by Kit and Irina, who are in this, removed and far away. I try.

"I can understand how hard that must have been," I fumble slightly, "I cannot feel the pain myself of course, but I can see it with my mind, I sympathize. And how challenging it must have been for those around you, who loved you and did not wish to see you in pain, not to be punished themselves when they had done nothing wrong. And as far as your practicing of medicine-- yes, I see. You see people at the most desperate moments of their lives. Some of them will never walk again, some of them die and you must tend to loved ones. Now, you have felt the despair, felt the frustration of being 'just another face' to a doctor, watched as your own wife and children suffered as you suffered. Of course you are a better doctor. You have been a patient..."

He looked at me a moment, trying to piece together exactly who I was. I could see I had puzzled him-- a young woman, the same age as his older son, who understood the greatest challenge of his life.

"You are a very sensitive girl, Alexandra. You understand. You feel how others feel."

11 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 12 August - The Post Office

At the post office to register our visas.


What a torment. An avalanche of paperwork and government bureaucracy required to visit a still archaic country.
     "Don't be fooled by our shopping malls," said Vadim as he filled out the forms for us, "We are still barbaric in many ways," and he checked off about 100 boxes. "Every day I spend hours filling our thousands of forms, hours I could be spending with my patients. But I must do it to prevent prosecution of course. I am not a dermatologist, I am operating on people's spines!"

We fill out the forms.
In Cyrillic.
We report to a window.
And eccentric elderly woman with gold teeth makes photocopies of a bazillion documents.
She points us to another window where we are to buy an envelope.
We buy the envelope.
We report to another window where we are to buy stamps
We buy them.
We report to a line where we are to send it off.
We stand in this line.
People cut in it.
We arrive at the window and after more kerfuffle send them off.

The process takes two hours.

The Post Office is damp and lightless and I cannot understand how we could possibly have survived it!
     "Russians must make everything hard..." Vadim sighs, "else, how would we suffer?" he twinkles.

The Russia Diaries: 11 August - Red Square and Captain Beatle

We arrive in to town and our first stop is certain: the iconic and stunning Red Square.

Krásnaya plóshchad (Кра́сная пло́щадь). It is beautiful. No, literally. The name Red Square derives neither from the colour of the bricks around it (which, in fact, were whitewashed at certain points in history) nor from the link between the color red and communism (an irony which goes not at all unnoticed).

Rather, the name came about because the Russian word красная (krasnaya) can mean either "red" or "beautiful" (the latter being archaic). This word, with the meaning "beautiful", was originally applied to Saint Basil's Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square. It is believed that the square acquired its current name (replacing the older and slightly less glamorous Pozhar, or "burnt-out place") in the 17th century.

Red Square is the most famous city square in Moscow, and arguably one of the most famous places in the world. The square separates the Kremlin (the former royal citadel and currently the official residence of the Russian President) from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod.

As major streets of Moscow radiate from here in all directions, being promoted to major highways outside the city, Red Square is often considered the central square of Moscow and, in many ways, of all Russia.

During the Soviet era, Red Square maintained its significance, becoming the symbolic and literal focal point for the new state. Besides being the official address of the Soviet government (the government was moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg after the Revolution for militaristic, as well as symbolic "shifting of paradigm" reasons), it was also renowned as a showcase for military parades. Kazan Cathedral and Iverskaya Chapel with the Resurrection Gates were demolished to make room for heavy military vehicles driving through the square (both were later rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union).

There were plans to demolish Moscow's most recognized building, Saint Basil's Cathedral, as well. The legend is that Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin's associate and director of the Moscow reconstruction plan, prepared a special model of Red Square, in which the cathedral could be removed, and brought it to Stalin to show how the cathedral was an obstacle for parades and traffic. But when he jerked the cathedral out of the square, Stalin objected with his famous quote: "Lazar! Put it back!"

The buildings surrounding the Square are all significant in some respect. Lenin's Mausoleum, for example, contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Nearby to the south is the elaborate brightly-domed Saint Basil's Cathedral and the palaces and cathedrals of the Kremlin.

St. Basil's rises from Red Square in an irresistible profusion of colors and shapes. Its montage of domes, cupolas, arches, towers, and spires, each bearing a distinctive pattern and hue, have fascinated the eyes of visitors since its construction in the 1550s.

On the eastern side of the square is the GUM department store, and next to it the restored Kazan Cathedral. The northern side is occupied by the State Historical Museum, whose outlines echo those of Kremlin towers. The Iberian Gate and Chapel have been rebuilt to the northwest.

Paul McCartney's performance there was a historic moment for many, including Vadim, as The Beatles were banned in the Soviet Union, preventing any live performances there of any of The Beatles; the Soviet Union also banned the sales of Beatles records, and this was the first time that a Beatle performed in Russia. Vadim was there.

"You are a bit of a superhero," I said, smiling.
"What is that word?" he asked, curiously.
"Oh," I fumble, "um, a superhero is really a fictional character with special powers. Like Superman or Batman or..." I know who he will like, and punch it with a mischievious grin, "Captain America."
He grins from ear to ear, his arms go up in the air and performs an involuntary little hop and hushed and quickly cries "I would like to be a superhero," before reserving himself once again realizing he is supposed to treat Red Square with reverence and sobriety. "I wish to be a Captain Something. I am after all, a Captain in the Army, it is because I am a medical doctor you see. All medical doctors must serve as Captains, it is the rule."
"Captain Vadim?"
"That is boring."
"Captain... Moscow?"
"Alexandra, please."
"Captain BEATLE."
He pauses and his eyes grow wide like a very young and very excited child.
"I AM CAPTAIN BEATLE..." he whispers... and in a flash, he IS. He places his arms behind his back and requests this photograph to capture the moment. "I AM THE WALRUS!!" he cries.

It is the cry of Captain Beatle.

* * *

"What about you Alexandra?" he asked as we made our way to the American car.
"What about me?"
"Are you a superhero too?"
"I don't know," I replied, "do you think so?"
"Oh yes," he nodded pensively,  "I do."
"Well, hm... I am not a Beatle..." I think for a moment.

I recall R's daughter. When I first met her 4 years ago we instantly bonded over The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I read a section to her about Owl and from that moment on she thought that my name was not Al but Owl and it stuck. When I call R, OWL SILBER comes up. And somehow everything associated with the owl has also stuck with me. I adore them and identify with them... all because of a little girl's "mistake." (Or was it?) Children are wise. Like owls.

"I like owls," I tell him
"Hm..." he thinks. He likes this. "The Night Owl?"

I love it.

"I love it," I tell him, "perhaps it should be in Russian?"
"Yes! Oh yes you have so much Russia in you Alexandra and here you are, it must be it must."
"Kak skazat' The Night Owl po-russki*?"
"Nachnaya Sava**."
"Oh my god I love it."
"It is very good."
"Ye lyublyu ta.^"
"Yes. Nachnaya Sava and Captain Beatle. It is good. The world is better off now."
"Hooo!" I cry, for I am Nachnaya Sava.
"And I... I am the walrus..."

That was the state of matters that afternoon.

We drove home exhausted, delighted. Hours of quiescent observation passed from the window of the American car; the world beyond the window appeared friendly, conversant, almost commonplace. 

And the setting Moscow sun was glowing on this irresistible man.

*How do you say The Night Owl in Russian?

**Ночная Сова = The Night Owl

^я люблю это = I love it

The Russia Diaries: 11 August - Narzan

11 August 2009


Day one.

доброе утро! Good morning Moscow, and what a glorious, clear day. Having (somewhat) recovered from the vodka of the night before, we embark upon our journey in to the heart of Moscow's city center by piling in to the Chevrolet armed, upon Vadim's passionate insistence, with bottles of Bulgakov's favourite sparkling water Narzan (Вода минерала нарзан). Vadim loves both Bulgakov and his preferred seltzer water. Very much.

In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov doesn't merely talk of ordinary seltzer water, he mentions the brand by name. In one particularly brilliant scene, a group of writers attempt to purchase cold drinks at a refreshment stand, only to discover that the stand has nothing to offer whatsoever. It is an apt and sardonic sketch of 1930 Moscow manners.

"Give me some Narzan water," said Berlioz.
"There isn't any," replied the woman at the refreshment stand, taking umbrage for some reason.
"Got any beer?" inquired Bezdomny in a hoarse voice.
"The beer will be delivered later," the woman answered.
"So what have you got?" asked Berlioz.
"Apricot juice, only it's warm," said the woman.
"Wel, give us that then!..."

The apricot juice generated an abundance of yellow foam, and the air started smelling like a barbershop. The writers drank it down and immediately began hiccuping, paid their money, and went over and sat down on a bench facing the pond, with their backs to Bronnaya Street."

Since 1894 this water has been bottled in Kislovodsk, a city in the lush region of Stavropol in Ukraine. In Bulgakov’s time Narzan water was associated with this sunny resort town in the North Caucasus (comparable to Vittel in France).

Narzan water is a real taste of Russia, and comes in delightfully slim green bottles with a whimsical label. When communism collapsed, Narzan had assets that most other domestic enterprises could only dream of - a pre-Revolutionary brand name, an established reputation, and a quality product. But in everything else it was like any other company emerging from the dysfunctional- if secure- command economy. When regular orders from the state dried up, the factory was forced to switch to products targeted at mass consumers: cheap fortified wine and - OH! oh yes! - bedroom slippers. It was quite a step down from the days when the company made special deliveries to ailing Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the 1920s.

But happily, today Narzan outperforms its Soviet peak producing 70 million liters per year and is back on the tables of the nation's elite, including the Kremlin. Vadim has cases of it, Kit has been a Narzan convert since his first visit in 1991, and I? It was love at first sip. Crisp. Clean. Delicious.

10 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 10 August - That Evening

"His name is Emmanuelle..." he chews on the name like a sour taste. He wets and purses his mouth, scrunches his shoulders,

The family is meeting this Emmanuelle for the first time tonight, and it is endearing to see Vadim squirm, shift and mope about his daughter's Milanese boyfriend who is not-so-secretly living with his 21-ear-old daughter.

"Everyone is keeping it a secret from me," he mopes "but I know they are living together. I know and they know I know and... ugh, I don't know..." He shifts in the driver's seat, face contorted in a kind of scowl. "Also," he says, "his name... ugh. It is the name of a certain film that came to Russia in the 70's... a sort of..." he is uncertain as to how to proceed with me, I am, after all, a completely new female, in the back of his American vehicle. "a sort of," he searches, "soft, erotic film." There. He said it. Emmanuelle, famed French softcore erotic movie. Emmanuelle as in the word metonymic with erotic film. Yes. EMMANUELLE. The name of his daughter's boyfriend. Wonderful.

And in this vain, it is clear that in Vadim's mind, no one has ever had better sex than the sex his 21-year-old-daughter is having with Emmanuelle in his head. In Vadim's imagination, the pair of them are enacting the types of horrific things one only ever sees on the covers of books with titles like A Savage Hunger, or, Lady Jane and the Elusive Tome. Emmanuelle must be a tan, strapping Italian over 6-feet tall, with billowing, greasy hair and an oily chest. His long, elegant, tapered, masculine fingers with the well-trimmed perfectly clean nails continued on their journey down the buttons of his daughter's perfectly-tailored Milanese bodice... ARGH!

He shudders. The car has been very quiet. Feathers ruffled, Vadim's forehead is crumpled into terrible creases. He is a father suitably skeptical.

* * *

Emmanuelle, it turns out, is not in fact the greasy swaggering sex offender he has been feared to be, but was, in fact, a child. A cherubic puppy-eyed, golden curly haired child of about 20 with an eager face keen to please, and an irritatingly high level of innate personal Milanese style that draped on him awkwardly-- knight's armor too large upon the apprentice.

Nastia was clearly in charge, telling him (in what I would quickly learn was the extraordinarily direct Russian manner) where to stand, sit, what to eat, drink, when to speak and at what volume, and managing somehow to avoid any of these directions to come across as truly domineering. In this particular instance, it was evident that her high-handedness was actually considered helpful to what was clearly, (we could see it now!) a rather overwhelmed and frightened Emmanuelle! Yes, upon closer inspection it was actually very sweet. Nastia was being the classic Russian wife. And everyone was fine with that.

Everyone, that is, except Vadim.

Vadim was loathe to see his daughter so grown up and domesticated. His baby,his girl, his teenager who once "drank coca-cola and coca-cola only by the bucket" had now requested a juicer. She drank fresh juice. Everyday. "In Italy they drink juice..." Vadim explains with a glower. Something about the juice was specifically hurtful. Not the fashion school or fluent Italian or native boyfriend; no.

The juice had done Vadim in.

When exactly did she grow up?

The Russia Diaries: 10 August - The Beatles

Mankind is looking for something, and will certainly find it. Oh, if it only happened more quickly.
- Anton Chekhov

There is a moment or two in the car when we all get used to one another. I am unprepared and not quite certain how to proceed. Vadim switches his brain to English, and settles in to it carefully, consciously, while speaking of consciousness, I am mindful of communicating well in my feeble English-only-but-excellent-at-hand-gestures-in-fact-I-always-win-charades-and-can-provide-several-alternative-word-choices way. (Note: I really am quite excellent at charades and do not recommend being on an opposing team at a party... don't challenge me to a duel... you will lose and curse my name).

The radio hums un-imposingly in the background. There is a pause that fills the car when the small talk and general inquiries die down. "Do you like the Beatles, Alexandra?" he finally asks. "Yes," I reply, "Who doesn't?"

"Paul McCartney played Moscow in 2003..." he trails off. "I was there..." It was three tiny words, but it rang out, sending energetic ripples throughout the atmosphere of the American car. I was there was pregnant with meaning. I begin to suspect there is more to it than your average Western Beatle-mania.

"You see," he explains "being a Beatles fan in the West was easy. Not so in Soviet Union. In those days," he explains, "it was illegal to bring a Beatles record into Soviet Union and if you were found with one, it was usually taken away. The Beatles were considered the sound of the capitalist threat during the Cold War," he adds.

It is true. Apparently in Soviet times, if one did try to smuggle a Beatles record in to the country they authorities would put the record on a special device, scratch it, and return it to the smuggler as a souvenir. Owning one was considered to be a form of treason. Recordings that did manage to pass through the tight screen were like gold. Most of the Beatles music that Vadim managed to listen to was, at best, third- or fourth-generation copies.

In his 1930s novel, The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov says that love fell upon the heroes like a mugger with a knife from a side street. Something similar apparently happened to the souls of Soviet "teenagers" (incidentally, a word Russia learned thanks to the Beatles).

"Beatlyi was the Russian word to describe things by the Beatles," Vadim adds. "I remember hearing the word for the first time. I knew exactly what it meant." He smiles wryly, the sensation of it ever present even now. "But it was impossible not to listen when all anyone was talking about was the Beatles. The music came to us from an unknown, incomprehensible world, and it bewitched us, it took hold of our spirits and imaginations."

In the early days, infatuation with the Beatles implied an unconscious oppositional stance, more curious than serious, and not at all threatening to the foundations of a socialist society.

"The youth of the Soviet Union do not need this cacophonous rubbish," stated Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev of the Beatles in the early 1960s. "It's just a small step from saxophones to switchblades."

Yet the Soviet youth, claims Vadim, did need the Beatles, and went to enormous lengths to be more like them. Vadim contends that the Beatles, more so than any other band of the time, was the single-most important factor in shaping pop culture behind the Iron Curtain.

"Later on, you could bring Rolling Stones albums into the country," he states, "but not the Beatles. The Beatles were an event. The Rolling Stones were just a rock band, but the Beatles were the cultural event of our century. 100 out of 100 youths, if asked who invented the electrical guitar," he continues, "would answer 'The Beatles.' Who invented rock-and-roll? The Beatles. Every event has a master, and the master of modern music was the Beatles."

He adjusts his black glasses in a swift, efficient movement. We are still for a moment, lost in thought. After a few minutes, he speaks again. His voice is quiet. His tone definite, what he is about to say is specific.

"The Beatles brought this message about love and peace. They allowed us a little bit of escape when there was no escape..."

We drive on. Flying through the traffic-less city streets with abandon.

The Russia Diaries: 10 August

10 August, 2009

In Moscow you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don't know anybody and where nobody knows you, and you don't feel that you're a stranger.
-- Anton Chekhov, The Three Sisters

* * *

To Moscow! Ah the cry of Chekhov's three sisters! To Moscow indeed!

Truth be told: I am depleted.
Burnt out.
These are the most accurate words to describe my current condition, but naturally it only grazes the edges. At this moment in my life I am empty in every significant way. Confidence. Creativity. Basic energy required to function. Jobless, homeless, heartbroken and exhausted, I am uncertain as to whether or not I will be able to be present for this journey. Yet, great moments of human endeavor can stimulate a sort of poetry.

This moment calls for the poise and ponderous delivery of never-to-be-forgotten strengths, a compromise between spiritual slaughter and the potential for a kind of ascension... Oh the competition.

But one must persevere. I must not allow the depletion to impale my brain, or let others crush my currently unbeating heart.

I will make a point of healing, topping myself up again, and, perhaps most dauntingly, opening myself to woundedness. The rains shall rinse out every fear.

And after all, to quote Anton's sisters once again:

What seems to us serious, significant and important will, in future times, be forgotten or won’t seem important at all.

And so I am here, in Moscow, further than Irina, Olga and Masha ever got, and here, again referring to the words of the sisters, I am not a stranger. In Moscow, there shall be light.

* * *

After our three-hour Aeroflot flight from London we passed through the formidable gates of Russian security, collected our bags, and made our way through the glass airport doors.

And there, hands cradled behind his back, standing just beyond the threshold, he stood.

He wore a burgundy cotton t-shirt, perfectly pressed linen trousers and light-weight sandals to combat (or perhaps to appreciate) the glorious heat of a late Russian summer day. His gray head was angled ever-so-slightly downward, his eyes hopeful and expectant through his dark-rimmed glasses.

As we approached he opened both of his arms wide and smiled. The gesture was subtle but his face spoke volumes as he approached, embracing Kit with both of his already open arms. "Hello, old friend," he greeted, his accent rich and voice full of feeling. "Hello!" greeted Kit, equally thrilled. They look at one another and grin broadly. There is a look of appraisal, of flooding memory, of understanding at grayer hair and nearly matching black-rimmed glasses.

In the vestiges of my memory, even from the periphery I can recall Kit's last visit to Russia, for when he was last there he was with Lilly who was with me celebrating the New Year my house in 2002. He emailed her. He spoke of amber. I didn't know him then, but I remember it well.

It has been seven years since they visited last. They are very old friends, and it would not take hearing the story of their meeting in 1991 to know it in this moment.

"Oh! This is Alexandra," introduces Kit, and Vadim takes my hand with both of his, greeting me with such an intensity of welcoming that my breath is nearly taken away. "Come!" he says his voice suddenly full of fun, and we make our way across the busy parking lot.

I already like him.

"I love American cars," he informs us as he packs Kit's giant blue and my petite red suitcases in the truck of his Chevrolet. He shuts the lid of the trunk, opens the doors, and soon the bespectacled Vadim (sporting a new goatee so I am told) is buckled up and we are on our way.

"Shall we drive through the city center?" he asks with a degree of excitement in his voice. "I love to drive through the city when there is no traffic. Traffic is terrible problem in Moscow, but today is a Monday. I feel like we should take the opportunity. Today it is a very good day."

Yes it is.

09 August, 2009

To Russia, with love...

Looming over the rest of Europe with its immense, inhuman size and dark, brutal history, Russia is an essential and fascinating place, the opposite of modern Europe and still an unknown quantity to most. Indeed, it is one of the last truly adventurous and unpredictable destinations on the continent.

And so... I venture East... for The Motherland calls me.

This is an adventure I have been planning for a very long time, and it will bring the ever-present mystery project even closer to its fruition.

I shall be accompanied by Kit, master of cultural, adventuresome fun, as well as the spirits of my ancestors, and a few delightful and generous Russian families willing to house a crazy American with a very Russian name (Александра).

So I shall be away for a while. But I promise to share all with you upon my return.

In the meantime I have scheduled some "out of office" publications to keep you satiated while I survey the Hermitage, explore the Central Committee building, view the houses of four Russian greats (before lunch!), feast my eyes on the Kremlin (and the Winter Palace, the Moscow Art Theatre, the Bolshoi...), bask in the glories of Lake Baikal "The Pearl of Siberia," and explore the blissful Siberian wilderness on the magical island of Olkhon.

Not to mention an overnight train or two, and an airline whose logo is a hammer and sickle with wings... all whilst sipping Moscow mules in deliciously soulful style... by which I mean a soul of the Russian variety...naturally...

...And perhaps I shall see Hodel...wouldn't that be something...?


The Russia Diaries: Vadim

10 August, 2009


This story cannot be told without first telling you of Vadim.

The facts are these: He is a family man of perhaps 55. Married to the excessively beautiful Irina with two children; the 25-year-old golden son Arkady-- an entrepreneur with bags of understated charisma, a natural head for business and a Midas touch, and the stylish-and-as-beautiful-as-her-mother-incredibly-intelligent-and-artistically gifted-but-charmingly-self-effacing-22-year-old fashion student Anastasia.

A large house on a developed estate sitting amongst the wild outskirts of Moscow with a yard and a barbecue. A dog. A cat. An American car.

He is tall. Slavic looking. Grey with a goatee and imposing black spectacles that are simultaneously hip and serious. He is a thinker. A dreamer. Author of a slim novel. He is a spinal surgeon. And crucially, Vadim might say most importantly to the formation of his identity, he has experienced and perhaps at times endured the transition of the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation.

He plays guitar. He is a Captain in the Army reserves. He loves coffee. And Bulgakov. And Gogol. And the occasional cigarette. And The Beatles... more than anything in the world.

Whether he is a hero of lionhearted vigor, or a simple man with complex experiences I may never be able to know, for he is simultaneously reserved and formal whilst also being the friendliest, most sincerely hospitable and openhearted man I have ever met.

Powerful and quiet. Private and candid. Joyous and sorrowful. An enigma of immensely pleasurable proportion. Yes, I have to admit that I very quickly came to see, understand, sympathize and delight in the riddle of Vadim. If not, in fact, quite frankly, to adore him.

06 August, 2009

Ahhh London: The Cat Call

So it went like this:

Creepy Youth in Car: Hey BABAAAAY!

[Al glances sideways with her signature "Oh my God he isn't referring to ME is he?" eyes]

Creepy Youth in Car: Yeah babaaaay that is RIGHT! I AM TALKIN' TO YO'!

[A firecar siren is heard in the distance...]

Creepy Youth in Car: HEY! it is comin'' fur YOU girl! CUZ YOU ARE SO SMOOOOOOOKIN HOT YOU'RE ON FIRE!

[Al is moved. That was actually a tremendous utilization of a chance opportunity. It deserves more of a smirk than a scowl. Smirk is granted.]

Creepy Youth in Car: WOO HOO!

[The Creepy Youth in Car drives off along West Green Road, ignoring the fact that a fire siren is something that is not in fact a toll of a proverbial "bell" announcing the arrival of a "hot" female, but is in fact a fairly serious social indicator of... a fire...]

04 August, 2009

Ask Al: The Actor's Process

What is the creative process like? Do you have a particular method for creating the characters you portray?


* * *

Dear H,

The short answer is No. But...the best way to put it is that I approach character development a lot like a collage. I want my character to live and breathe-- I want the character to be as close to a real person as is sane and possible. I know that sounds pedestrian, but the truth is, oftentimes there is a great deal of emphasis on a performance rather than on creating the impression of a living, breathing person. It is part methodical, part spontaneous and varies for every process.

I always have a book. (Usually a really simple, ugly one I feel happy to destroy, alter, throw about, and accidentally drop in the bath) which I fill with both very technical things (technique stuff a la Stanislavsky, Meisner, Hagen), and a tremendous amount of instinctively collected material.

Technically speaking one must collect several piece of information from the text itself: facts about the character, things the character says, and things others say about your character, etc. Those pieces of seemingly obvious information sometimes reveal a well of literal and subtextual inspiration and information about the character.

I always write out a full fleshed-out back story (I prefer writing this in third person "Julie Jordan was born in a small fishing village 40 miles south of Portland, Maine in the middle of the 19th century..."). I do the same for the gaps between scenes my character appears in, filling in the unspoken or unmentioned details of what happens between the scenes the audience views. For example, with Julie, I filled in the entire story of what happened between the opening scene where Billy and Julie fall in love, to the next scene where we see them unhappily married 3 months later. Etc.

Last, I collect any kind of visual or written additional inspiration that might help me access the character in another way. This means drawings, newspaper clippings, poems, bits of literature, photos, even fabric I feel is relevant to the development of the human being I’m chiseling and layering.

In general I like to arm myself with this copious research and more cerebral material before I ever get "on my feet." Once we’re staging, the work becomes primarily instinctive but I feel free to "feel" my way because the instinctive work has been informed by the prior intellectual work. I never leave a corner (either technical or instinctive) unexplored.

As I said of Julie Jordan in Ryan Roark's article last December:

"As far as Julie is concerned, I wrote down her biography, her history, and I wrote down what happens between the scenes, that the audience doesn't see. To be perfectly honest, I'm a closet academic. I want there to be a real cerebral process of what happens between the scenes, that then can translate itself emotionally, so that when you see Julie after two months have gone by, you can actually see that two months have gone by. I know exactly what has happened to her and what she's done. The lines and the words are rooted and loaded with real events and real things I've created in my mind. We all did a lot of that together, as the process. One of the great things about Lindsay [Posner, the director] is that we sit around a table for two weeks and we comb through the script, asking 'Why that word, and not another word?' and 'What do you think happened?', and we're all on the same page about exactly why we're saying what we're saying. What's great about that is that even nine months down the line when you're tired and you're maybe a little bored, that sort of detail can see you through. There's no way of losing yourself, because it's so specific and so rooted...."

I hope that answers your question! Good luck!

02 August, 2009

I've been:

watching my best and oldest friend Arielle get married to an incredible man

spending time in my favourite place on earth: MICHIGAN

...with some of my oldest friends (Ben, Alex, Arielle, Doug and Lilly)

...and favorite teachers (David, Robin, Lady Chu)

making smores at a bonfire on Lake Michigan

...and being The Keeper of the Marshmallows

walking along the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay with Lilly: trousers rolled up, shoes in hand, and realizing our lives are paralleled....

wishing I could live in Michigan

wondering what in the world I am going to do with my life

and making grand plans

and trying to find a place to live

in such terrible, unutterable emotional pain worse than any I have known before (including a certain loss...)

but regardless, working through it...

being reminded by previously mentioned wedding that true love heals many things

being reminded how much I love HOME and cannot/will not live without it

being reminded by previously mentioned friends that I and my friendship is of value

crying... a lot...and not the professional kind...

planning and preparing for The Great Russian Adventure (eek!)

listen to The Interlochen Theme and coming to the realization that camp is where the magic happened...

walking up and down far too many airport travel lounges.

mistaking the American dime for the English 5p... a LOT...

Exchanging stories, gorgeous food and child's laughter with Lady Chu and her amazing family. Look what a lifetime of letters can do!

loved and loving

basking in the glow of a frozen strawberry yogurt from the totally unchanged Melody Freeze, which still costs one beautiful dollar

getting sentimental because strawberry frozen yogurt tastes of childhood

realising the universe works in mysterious ways: Lilly and I, best friends who live in Santiago and London, run in to one another at Interlochen without even realizing we would be there at the same time... just when we needed one another...

trying to stand.


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